Stopping Elway key to Bronco-busting in Super Bowl XXII
First let's put all the old wives' tales regarding the Super Bowl back in the closet. You know, the ones that say no Super Bowl ever lives up to its advance billing; that coaches play not to lose rather than to win; that players flatten out from the tension and leave their best game in the locker room. The fact is Sunday's matchup between the Denver Broncos and the Washington Redskins here in Jack Murphy Stadium has a chance to be more than just a footnote in history.
Why? Because if this were a heavyweight title fight it would be Jack Dempsey vs. Gene Tunney; Joe Louis vs. Billy Conn. It's the classic football version of the slugger (Denver) vs. the boxer (Washington).
The Broncos, because of the multiple talents of quarterback John Elway, are a big-play team that often puts tremendous pressure on opposing defenses. This was never more evident than in their playoff victories over Houston and Cleveland, when they exploded for a total of 72 points.
There is no big secret, either, about which route Denver prefers to the end zone. In a word, if Elway doesn't actually own the once friendly skies of Johnny Unitas, his name is somewhere on the lease.
Not surprisingly, therefore, Washington's chief defensive preparation all week has centered around Elway and his ability to scramble and then throw the deep knockout punch. This doesn't mean the Redskins have been ignoring Denver's other assets, only that John is so obviously his team's key player that extra work is required to minimize his effectiveness.
When Elway is on the field, this will be an oversize cat-and-mouse game played by all-pro defensive end Dexter Manley and the rest of Washington's 250-to-300-pound cats against a 210-pound ``mouse'' who has been running up scoreboard clocks all year. And when he doesn't run, he passes, often from the shotgun formation.
During the regular season, Elway completed 224 passes for 3,198 yards and 19 touchdowns. His favorite targets are Vance Johnson, Mark Jackson, and Ricky Nattiel (who call themselves ``the Three Amigos'') plus tight end Clarence Kay.
Along with his aerial success, Elway was Denver's second-leading rusher behind Sammy Winder, his scrambling often turning broken plays into important gains.
So how do you handle a man like that? Well, you don't have to be Vince Lombardi to know that Washington will throw a lot of mixed coverages at Elway. John will see stunting (slanting defensive rushes) along the line of scrimmage; he'll see blitzing; he'll see double coverage on his best receivers; and he'll see a lot of sliding zones designed to shrink the size of the field against him.
None of this is anything Elway hasn't dealt with before, except that it will be cleverly camouflaged to look like something else. How well Washington coach Joe Gibbs applies this kind of makeup to his team's game face, and how well his players execute on defense, will decide whether his braves come off looking like Geronimo or the Indians on the late, late show.
Defensively Denver lacks some of Washington's size and overall ability. In regular-season games the Broncos gave up 34 points to Minnesota, 29 to Chicago, and 28 to Seattle. And in the American Conference championship game they just held off Cleveland, 38-33, this after waltzing past the Houston Oilers, 34-10, the week before.
Of course the Redskins don't have a high-powered offense like the one Denver coach Dan Reeves has built around Elway. The ground game has been ordinary, with George Rogers leading the team with 613 yards, and the passing attack has been inconsistent. But they do have the ``Cinderella Man,'' 32-year-old quarterback Doug Williams, who is a remarkable story in his own right.
Williams, who played his college ball at Grambling, was the first pick of Tampa Bay (17th overall) in the 1978 draft.
Only two years after joining a Buccaneer team that had gone 0-14 in 1976, Doug had them in the National Football Conference championship game. He has the courage and determination that all pro quarterbacks need to succeed, and he is the kind who once went out and played with his broken jaw wired shut.
Washington acquired the rights to Williams from Tampa Bay in 1986, after he had spent two years in the rival United States Football League, and used him primarily to play the part of opposing quarterbacks in practice.
It figured. The Redskins already had a talented young quarterback in Jay Schroeder, who not only threw for 22 touchdowns in '86 but was also named to the Pro Bowl, the NFL's post-season all-star game. At that point Doug was a 220-pound insurance policy with experience and a reputation for having a strong arm.
Although Schroeder started the current season for Washington, he so often had trouble moving the team that Gibbs finally switched to Williams. It worked, but without much of a comfort margin. In fact, Doug performed just well enough to get the Redskins through the playoffs and into the Super Bowl. (They beat the Chicago Bears, 21-17, and then the Minnesota Vikings, 17-10, for the NFC title.)
Williams has better-than-average receivers in Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders, Kelvin Bryant, and Art Monk, who is coming off the injured list. Clark averaged 19 yards a catch during the regular season and scored seven touchdowns.
However, for Washington to beat Denver on Sunday, two things probably would have to happen. First, the Redskins' overall defense would have to be at its absolute best.
Second, Williams (who throws a ``heavy ball'' that receivers sometimes have trouble handling), would have to play one of the best games of his career.
Either that, or Schroeder would need to come off the bench and give old Redskin fans a Sammy Baugh impersonation - or at least an Eddie LeBaron, a Sonny Jurgensen, or a Joe Theismann!